SUEDE, RICHARD ASHCROFT, KOOL AND THE GANG, THE LEVELLERS Hop Farm, Paddock Wood, Kent, 01 July 2012
In its fifth year, the Hop Farm is well, just another festival. Thankfully, shorn of tedious corporate adverts, of boring Credit Card symbols, of between band schills from fizzy drink companies, and from logo-splashed cups, and stages named after beers and mobile phone companies, The Hop Farm is so much more than that. When there were three festivals a year (Glastonbury, Reading, and a one day mud-strewn rock orgy at Donington), going to one of them was a big deal. Now, everyone and their dog has an open air show. During the boom, it could be seen as a glut – now, in the worst recession in eighty years, its just an embarrassment. Even now, on the same day – July 28th – PiL and The Wedding Present, and Echo & The Bunnymen and James, play two seperate festivals barely twenty miles apart. Better surely to combine all four, as the constituent target audience will overlap considerably?
Even the Hop Farm is a plucky underdog : some discount tickets surface not long before the shows, and only one of the several years I have been here have I paid full price. To an overwhelming sense of meh, Bob Dylan – who played this field a couple of years ago – and Peter Gabriel, who is so far into Dad Rock territory he's become a surrogate parent to the Wall-E Generation, are hardly big draws. Suede, who perform their first UK show in a year, are now some forty shows into their reunion. The initial sheen and rush of sparkling adrenaline is subsuming, and now, frankly, if you wanted to see Suede, there have been plenty of opportunities : they've played most of Europe, America, Asia, Russia, and almost everywhere inbetween in the past couple of years.
Thankfully, the air of retrospective nostalgia is not necessarily there. Whilst the bands on today have all over two decades at the coalface of music, there is enough new to keep you interested. As I arrive from Worksop (the previous night was a wedding in a very big house in the country) in a decadent double decker bus bounding through the countryside, The Levellers are performing “One Way”. Being a Festival site, it's four songs later by the time I get onsite : you arrive next to stage, seperated by a corrugated steel fence, then walk half a mile, get a wristband, walk through another two checkpoints, then are thrown out a half mile from the stage. By the time I get to within 100 yards of the stage, The Levellers have performed “Belaruse”, “The Garden”, some new stuff, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and “The Riverflow”. They look exactly the same as they used to (albeit, slightly hairer and greyer), and sound the same as they have all the other times I have seen them live and been bored by them : their shows are everything they used to be, a concentration of the slight-outlaw-rebel ethic alongside some stuff about Anarchy, a few people with bad hair and Levellers t-shirts, a whole bunch of obvious lyrics about thinking for yourself where you are told to think for yourself, and a bunch of fiddles and a digiridoo. Dance in your wellies, pretend to be free, don't get too drunk : there's work tomorrow.
A wander around the various stalls and stages shows the usual assortment of shops, carpet stalls (who goes to these things to buy a bloody carpet?), the only thing of interest is the usual £6 for a box of food, and friends. Some of whom I don't even know are here until they wave at me. Some of the others have been buried down the front under Mat Osman's nose since the dawn of time. Being jealous of their dedication, I instead wander around aimlessly talking rubbish with friends whilst Kool And The Gang perform. As it happens, I have mutual friends with Richard Oakes, Suede's guitarist, and thus spend most of Kool's set talking general rubbish about all kind of things, including the no-drinking rule, sloppy guitar solos, where the best single men and women are if you want to meet somebody standing on their own and get together with them (fit girls and boys on Brett's side, guitar nerds on Richard's), and Peter Hooks synth setup. And how to file CD's : the killer blow is delivered with a question - “How does iTunes do it?”
In the meantime, Kool And The Gang are roaring through “Celebration”, “Jungle Boogie”, and fourteen other songs you know, but don't know you know. A shameless greatest hits set, the enormous band snakes around the stage like some kind of invading funk party nation. Populated by members who are clearly not old enough to be there the first time, including I presume, some unemployed singers in gold-shirts who were forced to participate by A4E's Workface/War-On-Benefit-Scroungers Initiative, and some who may very well be one of the 800 or so funk sons sired by James Brown, the lineup is immense in girth, the sound huge with slap bass, and most of the field waves its hands in the air like you just don't care, say yeah! It's glorious and silly, and reminds of seeing prince, when the world was drenched in funktacular grooves.
Richard Ashcroft meanwhile, must be seething he isn't supporting The Stone Roses in Heaton Park this weekend. His set is 80% Verve (15 years old), and 20% solo (not 15 years old) : whilst the windswept, sunny Sunday afternoon isn't exactly the ideal environment for his visionary, reaching epics, the audience – or some at least – receive his sermon rapturously. Halfway through he puts on his sunglasses, proclaiming that now you can recognise him. Lennon was right. After some political hectoring in a Tory heartland, Ashcroft proclaims that “These are my songs – nobody can take them away from me!” like some kind of Indie Braveheart as “Bitter Sweet Symphony” roars around the field. It's a good song flattened by a passionless backing band who know the tedious inevitably of having to replicate a song someone else created. “Lucky Man” sounds the opposite of its title, a dirge of joy.
Next up, as the sun sets over a night in British fields, Suede, for their tenth UK show since 2003, prepare to wow a field made half of diehards and half of casual bystanders, and play as if their lives depend upon it.
Having missed the 2011 Album-in-full shows due to a mixture of circumstances, including mild apathy, money, personal circumstances, work, and geography, the last time I saw Suede was 2010's underwhelming show at the O2 where shoddy sound, huge chunks of an apathetic, yapping crowd, and a cavernous venue sucked a lot of joy from the night. This time around, the venue is far more enjoyable, the sound better, and – aside from some yapping dummies who bark during “Still Life”- a half-partisan, half-fervent audience see Suede fighting from the opening of the gates with a greatest hits set that grabs the field by the scruff of the neck and doesn't let go. Being the classic lineup, with the guitarist that toured “Dog Man Star” and made “Coming Up” and “Head Music” and “A New Morning”, (i.e. : not Bernard), it's the Suede that lasted longest and sold the most, not the one that is the darling of the critics. Popular myth is that Suede went rubbish when Bernard left, but that is just a lie. Few remember that Richard saved Suede from disappearing into forgotten obscurity and with him they went on to make several more albums and be huge. Neil Codling, the adrongynous stick that baffled hormones and bewildered ears, is back on guitar and piano, and with the solid and confident Mat Osman and Simon Gilbert on rhythm, Suede are so so much more than the Brett Anderson show.
Every band has its intro tape : Suede have John Barry's wonderful theme to “The Black Hole”. From here, everything is largely perfect. They open with “Introducing The Band”, and follow it with the under-appreciated top 17 flop of “We Are The Pigs” : not that you would know it from the way the crowd largely turns to steam and jumps around for the next 90 minutes. The hits keep coming, with “Trash”, “Filmstar”, “Animal Nitrate” (dispatched perfectly), “She”. If you see Suede now, you're seeing Suede at their best – shorn of the need to flog product or be on TV, just playing the songs and keeping the memory alive, making new memories.
For me, the first surprise of the night comes with song seven. I've seen Suede around 50 times, from tiny clubs in London, to huge fields in the North, from fan club b-side shows and video shoots to arenas and even miming for Channel 5 : There is a Suede Holy Grail. A song they played just six times in 1993-1994, once in 2003, and only three times since their reunion : I've managed to miss it every time, for reasons too tedious to mention revolving around geography and work and weddings.
Not tonight. “Stay Together”. At last. After 18 years. I get it. And what a song it always was. With this being the first time the song has ever been performed outdoors, and only the fifth time since it was released, this is special. I loved, and love, this song. I never understood why the band felt it a bit of a burden and rarely played it. The song clatters and pounds and I'm lost in another world. So much so, I text my wife – we met at a Suede gig – and told her that at last, I had “Stay Together”. (She has had it before, the lucky girl).
The surprises keep coming : new song “Sabotage” is next, and it is a slinky, devious thing – spoilt only by a lack of familiarity. A few moments later, and the band are firing into the ever-beautiful debut “The Drowners” and best-b-side-by-anyone-ever “Killing Of A Flashboy”. There's a live ad-lib Brett throws in on the best nights – we get it tonight. The determindedly retrospective set is broken by “Can't Get Enough”, from the under-rated and brilliant “Head Music”, before the other big surprise of the night. The never heard by anyone else ever live debut of “For The Strangers”, which again, is only spoilt by a lack of familiarity : it's a fine song, showing a maturity and depth that perhaps some of the earlier material doesn't have, being a kindred spirit of the type of song that is “She's Not Dead”. No rampaging beast set from the traps, but a coiled snake waiting to strike.
From here it is a solid run of gold hits : “So Young”, “Metal Mickey”, “Heroine”, “The Wild Ones”, “New Generation”, “Beautiful Ones” all burning and dispatched with familiarity and power. (Around this point some cretin with a massive backpack decides to 'mosh' and takes a lump out of my arm with the steel claws of an exposed umbrella, the fucking braindead nincompoop).
These are great songs about love, loss, hope, and near enough everything that ever mattered in the world. All wrapped up in beautiful five minute explosions of sound. Richard peels out noises like the unsung genius he is, whilst the rest of the band lock into a tight, sharp groove : this is exactly what it was like twenty years ago, albeit with slightly different shirts and mostly shorter hairstyles. We may be different, we may be older, we may have grown – but we have evolved, refined. Some of us have changed and now vote for the decapitation of the National Health Service, the amputation of the Army, and the empoverishment of the millions – whilst throwing money carelessly at corrupt, unaccountable banks. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, like ever. These aren't just songs, but manifestos. Cultural signals for meaning. How mankind carves something from nothing but making meaning and reason out of chaos. As it all comes to an end, the band perform “Still Life”, no longer an acoustic strum, but the full band performing a crescendo of sound , the kind of grand gesture and vision that so many bands these days fail to even aspire to. If you don't even try to reach for the stars, you will never see the whole of the moon. Beautiful.